Syed Haider Raza’s landscapes of the late 1950s and early 1960s were largely inspired by the rolling vistas and villages of rural France, which he encountered for the first time on his travels around the country. Ciel Blue was painted a decade after Raza’s arrival in France during a critical period where Raza’s treatment of landscape was evolving. It is during this period that Raza borrows and adapts Expressionist and Post-Impressionist schools of art that he had experienced for the first time in Europe. Raza particularly credits the influence of Nicolas de Staël whose exhibition he had viewed while in Paris in the late 1950s. Observing that de Staël had become “very abstract, very sensual, very non-realistic. […] There was a whole lot of expression to be surveyed but what was important was that ultimately you came back to yourself. You didn’t have to paint like Cézanne, nor Nicolas de Staël.”(Artist statement, A. Vajpeyi, A Life in Art: RAZA, New Delhi, 2007, p. 70)
Raza embarked on a path of self-exploration through art, combining the abstraction of Modernism, the painterly techniques of Expressionism and the philosophy of color of Post-Impressionist schools of art. The forms of Ciel Blue even pay homage to the abstracted forms of Cubism, whilst expressing something more primal and emotive in both gesture and texture. While the subject matter is still discernible, color and painterly application become the key elements of the compositions. In Ciel Blue a small, dense village denoted by a group of colliding rooftops, peeks out under the deep blue of the night sky whilst a riot of red, orange and green foliage cascades down a hillside below the village. Raza relies on color and texture as stylistic devices to communicate an emotional rather than visual experience of place. Emblematic of the intuitive expressivity of France’s post-war art yet defying regional or stylistic designation, Ciel Blue stands as a testament to the freshness of vision of one of India’s most revered modern masters.